The Childhood of a Leader begins with the sounds of an orchestra warming up. A conductor’s voice cuts through the cacophony – “Okay, let’s try this please”. Cut to a title card with the word ‘Overture’ as powerful music swells with the anticipation of the spectator. This film marks the directional debut of actor-turned-director Brady Corbet, and he certainly doesn’t hold back. Indeed, as a directional debut, the phrase “let’s try this” is a neat summary. Whether the film follows through on its ambitious premise, however, is another matter.
Based on a Jean-Paul Sartre novel of the same name, The Childhood of a Leader relies on its synopsis being quite possibly its biggest draw – a portrait of a young boy who is destined to become a fascist dictator. The aforementioned orchestral score, penned by the masterful Scott Walker, thrills us with its dramatic tones and promises a suitably grand film to follow. Aside from the musical score, the film’s other technical marvel is the unorthodox use of the camera. During quiet scenes it is still, but during more tumultuous moments it sways, circles, rolls and is generally unpredictable. It also sometimes switches to a foggy point-of-view shot that is occasionally ambiguous in its connection to the general narrative. It is this fresh take on the movement of camera, coupled with the unusual subject matter, that truly elevates the film. We know we are about to see something that will evoke the most popular representation of political evil possible, and so the actual film that materialises is rather unexpected. The question of how a child becomes a monster is not at all answered. Instead, The Childhood of a Leader captures a fairly straightforward childhood, and therein lies all its power.
The film is divided into three acts, each culminating with a tantrum. Though structurally such a premise indicates an energetic build-up, the pace of film is, in fact, rather quiet and slow. The tantrums manifest as small moments of explosive behaviour, not nearly as intriguing as one might expect. To substitute, it is the boy’s persistent aura of barely-suppressed rage that drives the film. That, and his unexplained anger towards nearly everyone who crosses his path, especially those closest to him. It is no exaggeration to say that Tom Sweet, who plays the ten-year-old Prescott, carries this film. For one so young he exercises remarkable restraint, easily outshining the highly accomplished adults of the cast – who include Robert Pattinson, Bérénice Bejo, Stacy Martin and Liam Cunningham. Sweet effortlessly turns the character of a spoilt brat into a sympathetic, almost accidental villain.
Prescott’s childhood may be straightforward, but it is by no means ordinary. For starters, this boy enjoys an extremely comfortable life of privilege – in an economic, social and political sense. He casually strolls about an enormous French mansion, complete with staff. He is a passer-by in the life of his father, whose career ties to Woodrow Wilson mark him as an important man. Indeed, at one point an unofficial cabinet meeting is held in the boy’s house (and it truly is his house) in such an intrusive manner that it is easy to see how one so young can become entangled in a sphere of political influence. But Prescott doesn’t seek so much to understand as to control – an idea that resurfaces over and over.
Even the introduction to this child character is beset by violence. He tosses stones carelessly – yet intentionally – at innocent parishioners. Crucially, this is not a story about a child allowed to run amuck – that would be too easy. Prescott is routinely punished for his bad behaviour – the stone-throwing incident results in a display of public humiliation as he is forced to apologise to every parishioner after a nativity play. Similarly, a scene which involves the young boy exposing himself to his father results in an unrelentingly violent beating. Prescott is always testing the waters. He plays at games he does not fully understand with his immature notions of violence, sexuality and emotional cruelty. Yet his sociopathy is an astoundingly effective tool that he wields to manipulate those he knows. What choice does he have? This is a child who only friend is his nurse, a child who endures a permanent loneliness and whose parents are permanently detached.
So, who is the child meant to be? In terms of an actual historical figure, that is. He cannot be Hitler, Stalin, or Mussolini, whose collective childhoods were nothing like his. Indeed, he cannot really be any one dictator. He is the perfect amalgamation of a fictional evil-mastermind coupled with the polarising otherness of a child. The enigmatic symbols of red flags during the film’s finale intensify this deliberately equivocal take on history. Perhaps The Childhood of Leader is at its most ambitious during the reveal of the grown up Prescott (Pattinson), with his uncannily twitching eyes and illogical orders. It is only by transposing the behaviour of a young boy onto an adult that we can truly see the monstrous child for what it is.